It was not all that long ago that Switzerland was the land of the One Cheese. Indeed the government all but made sure of it, proclaiming and promoting Emmental above almost all others as The Swiss Cheese. They supported over-production through subsidy and more to ensure exports of not only an iconic Swiss food, but an enormous economic machine that peaked with more than 800 producers once making Emmental all but exclusively. That’s changing. With the collapse of the Swiss Cheese Union, over the past decade, the producers of Emmental have dropped to less than 150 in 2012. Exports in that span dropped by more than one-third. In 2006, Emmental was given AOC protection and other actions have been taken to assure that Swiss Emmental is still recognized as the true Swiss cheese.
But all is not wrong, in fact the decline in market share is in part due to the growth of other Swiss cheeses with Gruyère, Vacherin Fribourgeois and Tête de Moine challenging the sacred cow that once was Emmental. Swiss artisans are once again rediscovering the diversity of their dairy heritage. Thanks to folks like Rolf Beeler, who are reclaiming traditional methods and creating better cheese, the future may be brightest just beyond the horizon.
With this explosion of newer cheeses, I’ve always found buying alpine style Swiss cheeses at my local counters a bit of a dilemma: many choices, many similarities. So with that in mind I’ve gone out and purchased three outwardly similar cheeses for a side by side taste test. Is their true differentiation? Is one “better” than the other?
For the comparison I picked three: Scharfe Maxx 365, Nufener Bio Bergkäse “Würzig”and Hoch Ybrig.
All are Alpine cheeses made through the practice of transhumance, in which shepherds drive their cattle from the valley floors where they winter up to the rich grassy and flowered meadows at elevation to be milked in the summer and cheese made. All are cooked-curd, pressed, washed-rind cheeses. If you know Gruyère, you get the picture: dense, nutty, buttery, good melting cheeses.
Maxx 365 – Making cheese since 1867, Käserei Studer crafts about a dozen cheeses in Alpine styles. Studer began making Emmental, switched to Appenzeller and over the past 20 years have expanded into other styles under the guidance of third generation Studer’s Daniel & Thomas with Martin Egli,. Appenzeller-inspired Maxx 365, as the name implies, is aged a full year before release.
Brine-washed, it’s a moderate 12″wheel weighing 13-15lbs, Maxx 365 is rich in crystals and depth of flavor. They sell a younger version “Scharfe Maxx”, and as it ages they plug each wheel seeking the special examples to age further. As if the cheese wasn’t rich enough, the makers blend in a bit of added cream. When is that ever bad?
Nufener Bio Bergkäse “Würzig” – The Swiss maker Sennerei Nufenen produces two grades of Nufener Bio Bergkäse (sometimes called just “Nufenen”): “Mild”, the younger cheese aged three to five months and “Würzig”, aged five to eight.
At about a mile above sea level, Nufenen is is an Alpine pass in eastern Switzerland in the southern canton Graubünden. There the village dairy of Sennerei Nufenen is supplied by a cooperative of 22 organic farmers and dairies who milk Braunvieh cows.
In Summer, the cows graze rare grasses, herbs and flowers found only at this altitude. The milk is prized in the region. Like the other cheeses in this comparison, Nufener Bio Bergkäse is small, when compared to the enormous car tire-sized wheels of Emmental and Gruyère. Instead, this cheese is small, a 10″ wheel weighing about 11lbs. It’s brine washed for the duration of its cave aging.
Hoch Ybrig – Pronounced “hockh EE-brig”, this is Swiss affineur Rolf Beeler’s Gruyère-inspired, wine/brine-washed Alpine cheese. Imported in the US by Caroline Hostettler who ages them to at least one year, the cheese is about the same size as Maxx 365, a 12″ wheel weighing around 15lbs. The cheese is made in one location drawing on the milk of several local Simmental cattle herds.
Beeler can rightfully be called Switzerland’s cheese evangelist. For more than 30 years, he ignored the mass-produced markets to preserve and develop Swiss heritage originals. He’s a darling among restauranteurs and the media, who dubbed him “Pope of cheese” and the “Rambo of the aged cheese”. What was once only available from his market stall in Lucerne, in 1998 he launched an international business. Beeler is now a highly-respected exporter, much like Neal’s Yard does for English cheese. The world has finally caught up with what Beeler knew all along.
So how do these three cheeses compare?
As with all washed-rind cheeses you can expect a bit of stinky rind, Maxx 365 was the least stinky of the bunch, hardly any of the pissy bacterial scent. The cheese is rich with caramel, brown butter and custard, sweet, salt & peppery. This almost approaches the flavor of aged Gouda. The added cream creates a moist, dense paste but at this age it is also the hardest and driest, readily breaking to shards. Rich with crystals and crunch throughout/ Deep and big with a lingering sharpness.
Cheese: Maxx 365
Who: Käserei Studer
Milk Type: cow (raw)
Shape: 13-15lb, 12″ wheel
The one cheese that tasted almost barnyardy and a bit of pond water scent. A little bitter, salty and sharp but the least complex of the three in terms of depth. Mild flavor but still crunchy. WOuld be interesting to age this another few months.
Cheese: Nufener Bio Bergkäse “Würzig”
Who: Sennerei Nufenen
Milk Type: cow (raw)
Shape: 11lb, 10″ wheel
The stinkiest rind of all, with a bacterial funk that also flavors the paste along the rind. The most singular flavor profile of the three cheeses. Sharp but less-so than Maxx 365, the dominant flavor is that of cooked, sweet butter and salt. This was the smoothest and creamiest paste.
Cheese: Hoch Ybrig
Who: Rolf Beeler
Milk Type: cow (raw)
Shape: 15lb, 12″ wheel
Each of these cheeses originates in basically the same fashion:
- Alpine-originated from cattle grazing at high elevations, summer milking
- raw milk
- cooked curd & pressed
- washed-rind – one not so stinky
- aged at least six months with two at a year plus
- salt, butterscotch/butter/sweet
- dense, creamy but crunchy paste
Maxx 365 by a significant margin is the most complex, the richest flavor combination. Very crunchy, sweet and butterscotchy with the least bacterial stink. Hoch Ybrig ranks second in overall strength and depth of flavor but is certainly a bit of a stinker, most odorous of the lot. Nufener is the mildest and least complex while still being sharp. All would be very good for cooking and fondue, depending on how earthy you like it. All are nice cheeses that reflect that the Swiss cheese arts are flourishing and diversifying in very rewarding ways.
So which is my One (Swiss) Cheese? The cheese I’d likely always opt for if all three were available?